Obsession with race doesn’t help the poor

 31 Aug 2013 - 2:45

By Clive Crook

One wonders what Martin Luther King Jr would have made of Wednesday’s event at the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, is remembered partly for his “I Have a Dream” speech. Could he have dreamed that within two generations a black American president would stand at the lectern to praise his vision? And how far would that remarkable fact atone, in his view, for the country’s lingering failure to give black Americans their full measure of economic and social equality?

Barack Obama has often emphasised the paradox. The country that elected him to its highest office is still divided by race — culturally, socially and economically.

There has been progress, and not just in attacking legally sanctioned discrimination. Physical segregation has gently declined, decade by decade. Blacks go to college, advance to the middle class and hold political office in vastly larger numbers than in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the black-white gap on measures such as income, employment and intergenerational social mobility persists, and in some respects may have worsened in recent years.

So complicated an issue resists simple prescriptions, but I’ll venture one anyway: Dethrone race as the organising principle for social reform.

This isn’t to say that race doesn’t matter. Explicit discrimination in housing and employment may be illegal, but the persistence of disguised — maybe even unintended — discrimination on grounds of race is a documented fact. Even if discrimination had vanished, blacks would still be at an economic disadvantage because of the burden their parents and grandparents had to carry. This legacy continues to provide an ethical justification for what King called “compensatory consideration,” or what came to be called affirmative action.

The problem with explicitly race-based policies is that they’re increasingly beside the point or even counterproductive. Affirmative action mainly helps blacks from better-off families: It’s of little use to persistently unemployed blacks in depressed inner cities. In higher education it can put students in situations where they can’t learn effectively, contributing to dropout rates that are high even by US standards (and that’s saying something). One of its most pernicious costs is that it casts suspicion on the achievements of successful blacks.

The country’s insane devotion to incarceration strips families and neighbourhoods of fathers and potential breadwinners. It’s true — and scandalous — that this injustice falls disproportionately on blacks, but the policy is wrong, first and foremost, because it is a travesty of justice to lock people up for years for nonviolent offenses. 

What goes for criminal justice applies to most other areas of social policy as well. It will be a long time, if ever, before the US can be entirely colour-blind. But things have changed. In 1963, race-based policies were a moral imperative: Rising to King’s challenge required them. In 2013, they’re an ambiguous ally, at best, in making his dream a reality.

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By Clive Crook

One wonders what Martin Luther King Jr would have made of Wednesday’s event at the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of August 28, 1963, is remembered partly for his “I Have a Dream” speech. Could he have dreamed that within two generations a black American president would stand at the lectern to praise his vision? And how far would that remarkable fact atone, in his view, for the country’s lingering failure to give black Americans their full measure of economic and social equality?

Barack Obama has often emphasised the paradox. The country that elected him to its highest office is still divided by race — culturally, socially and economically.

There has been progress, and not just in attacking legally sanctioned discrimination. Physical segregation has gently declined, decade by decade. Blacks go to college, advance to the middle class and hold political office in vastly larger numbers than in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the black-white gap on measures such as income, employment and intergenerational social mobility persists, and in some respects may have worsened in recent years.

So complicated an issue resists simple prescriptions, but I’ll venture one anyway: Dethrone race as the organising principle for social reform.

This isn’t to say that race doesn’t matter. Explicit discrimination in housing and employment may be illegal, but the persistence of disguised — maybe even unintended — discrimination on grounds of race is a documented fact. Even if discrimination had vanished, blacks would still be at an economic disadvantage because of the burden their parents and grandparents had to carry. This legacy continues to provide an ethical justification for what King called “compensatory consideration,” or what came to be called affirmative action.

The problem with explicitly race-based policies is that they’re increasingly beside the point or even counterproductive. Affirmative action mainly helps blacks from better-off families: It’s of little use to persistently unemployed blacks in depressed inner cities. In higher education it can put students in situations where they can’t learn effectively, contributing to dropout rates that are high even by US standards (and that’s saying something). One of its most pernicious costs is that it casts suspicion on the achievements of successful blacks.

The country’s insane devotion to incarceration strips families and neighbourhoods of fathers and potential breadwinners. It’s true — and scandalous — that this injustice falls disproportionately on blacks, but the policy is wrong, first and foremost, because it is a travesty of justice to lock people up for years for nonviolent offenses. 

What goes for criminal justice applies to most other areas of social policy as well. It will be a long time, if ever, before the US can be entirely colour-blind. But things have changed. In 1963, race-based policies were a moral imperative: Rising to King’s challenge required them. In 2013, they’re an ambiguous ally, at best, in making his dream a reality.

WP-BLOOMBERG